Up Scale

November 4, 2010

In a prior post about gyms and membership fees, I wondered: Is the cost worth it for “the super high end place that … lets you grunt away in a spa-like environment?” Well, I don’t want to talk about the circumstances, but I found myself in just such a location today. You know the kind of place – where the actual gym serves as a loss leader for the club café. Is this really a better way to work out? You be the judge based on the top 10 most remarkable things I saw:

10.  A dealer’s Mercedes parked on front lawn with a sign on the windshield promising special offers for members.

9.  A membership requirement that includes an initiation fee, an administration fee and a triple digit monthly fee.

8.  An empty Perrier bottle left on the gym floor.

7.  Eco-friendly showers that try to create the sensation of a regular shower by spraying a combination of 50 percent air and 50 percent water. (It just takes you twice as long to get clean.)

6.  An indoor waterfall.

5.  A man near the aerobics rooms balancing on his head.

4.  A locker room that includes a Miami sauna and a Phoenix sauna (door on the left takes you into a wet steam, door on right is a traditional dry heat).

3.  Plush leather couches stationed outside the hair salon.

2.  Mobbed machines.

1.  Empty squat racks.

In Decline

October 27, 2010

The decline bench should be a place to do great work. Tricep extensions performed on a decline bench force your arms to move under constant tension; Russian twists on a decline build rotational strength and grow obliques that look like armor; decline dumbbell presses cover a huge range of motion and focus the load almost exclusively on your pecs. (I’ve read that decline dumbbell presses might be the perfect chest exercise.)

Unfortunately, gyms and equipment manufacturers have conspired to turn the decline bench into just more weight room clutter.

Almost every decline bench I’ve ever climbed onto makes me seasick. I don’t know whether to blame the gyms that won’t tighten the pivotal bolt, or manufacturers that throw together such an unstable piece of equipment. Regardless, every chest day, I find myself rolling back and forth as I work to press up two heavy dumbbells.

Today, I mounted a decline bench that actually got the stability right. It was designed, however, without any consideration for the proportions of the human body. The leg pads were fixed at least 12 inches too high, so that my butt and low back were pulled off the bench. The whole position was so insecure that as soon as I started pressing, I slid right down the slope of the decline.

I did find a gym once with a good decline bench. Two in fact, side by side. They were solid, stable, ready to go. Of course, they were located up a long flight of stairs and down the hall, impossibly far from the gym’s dumbbell rack.

Clean Machine

August 7, 2010

Here’s an interesting headline this week from the New York Times: Be Sure Exercise Is All You Get at the Gym. Surprisingly, the article isn’t about loading up on calories at the club snack bar, or getting the phone number of someone who looks good in gymwear but turns out to be a creep. The column is actually a warning about gym cooties, and why it’s essential to shower thoroughly after each workout.

Now, in my experience, people are rarely working up enough of a sweat to do real damage to the equipment or anyone else. In fact, you’ll note that the case presented in the article comes from the world of college athletics and has nothing to do with recreational health clubs. But fair enough, point taken.

I would like to note, however, that the article’s call to action is easier said than done. Here’s some information posted this morning at my gym’s front desk:

Fitness Revolution

December 13, 2009

Although I’ve clearly taken sides in the ongoing conflict of gym vs. member, the strategies on both sides deserve recognition.

Gyms have the home field advantage, of course, forcing members to devise engineering marvels just to get in a decent workout. At one gym, I came across an ingenious solution to the inexcusable lack of a pull-up station. Some members had laid a barbell across the top of a squat cage and used lifting straps to fasten the bar to the frame. At a different gym, I watched a guy approach the squat rack at the beginning of his leg routine, only to find that the j-hooks had mysteriously disappeared. He moved the safety bars to shoulder height and flipped them upside-down, creating makeshift arms on the outside of the cage to prevent the bar from rolling off.

Members aren’t just suffering these humiliations sitting down, however. In the sauna, I was recently stunned as one gentleman got up from the bench and poured his half-finished water bottle all over the top of the electric heating unit. I don’t know if he confused the geothermal rocks in an authentic Swedish sauna with the expensive box plugged into this sauna. Regardless, while everyone else looked on approvingly, I got the hell out of there.

Although members do score the occasional victory, gyms continue to innovate around crushing the spirit of their clientele. This morning, I stopped at my gym’s entrance to take in a new poster touting improvements coming soon. My muscles tingled at the thought of a better leg press, a replacement for that clunker of a calf-machine, and new treadmills that don’t malfunction mid-run. But then I read the details of the planned upgrades: More kettlebells, a coat of paint for the cardio room, and a renovation of the smoothie bar. Well played, indeed.

Focus Group

March 27, 2009

Due to our lack of skill, my golfing buddy and I usually play a scramble. After each stroke, we both take our next swing from the preferred location of the better ball. I remember one hole when my friend blasted his drive almost 300 yards: his ball traveled 150 yards straight and then 150 yards right, landing deep in the woods. I launched my drive straight but sky-high, causing the ball to plug hard against the wall of a sand trap. Someone in our foursome, unable to contain his schadenfreude, yelled out, “And that’s your preferred drive!”

Golf is a sport that requires focus and concentration, just like serious exercise. I’ve long believed that proper conditioning is not just a measure of fitness, but also an ability to block out a gym’s countless distractions. Frankly, I don’t see how you can achieve one without the other. Just take a look at a typical week of assaults on my senses.

Sight: On Monday, I pushed open the door of my gym and walked into a cave. The fellow at the front desk asked my forgiveness for the power outage, and invited me to work out anyway. Dude: no apology necessary – I’m just delighted the front door is unlocked. The rest is up to me.

Sound: How about working out while a fire alarm shrieks endlessly? (Same gym, same time.)

Smell: On Wednesday, my jump rope and I were met at the threshold of the aerobics room by the health club version of tear gas: a repairman was applying industrial lubricant to a dozen stationary bikes. I counted on my clean-running liver to process the toxic fumes at the same rate I inhaled them.

Touch: On Friday, the gym I used has its free weight area built on some kind of plywood platform. When I perform heavy squats, I can feel the floor sag under the weight of each rep.

Now I know what you’re thinking: The distractions at the beginning of the week were just a coincidence, but an unstable floor is a permanent feature. Shouldn’t a weak base be motivation enough to go find a new club?

Actually, this facility is my preferred gym.